J500 Media and the Environment


Eating better, thinking better

When I first started this class in January, I couldn’t really define “organic”. Like many others, I’ve always been told by my mother to eat always eat my veggies and try to eat healthy in general. But until I took this class, I never really stopped to look at the food I was putting in my body.

— from flickr.com

I certainly had no idea what “local food” meant either, but the idea never really seemed that foreign of a concept. Growing up I’ve eaten vegetables grown in my grandpa’s garden or meat from family’s friend’s farms. I think, in general, Kansans don’t see local food so much as a food movement as they see it as common sense because of the agricultural setting in which we live. Yet despite where we live and the food-growing opportunities surrounding us, we still don’t know where most of the food we eat comes from. This idea is what I liked learning about and exploring most in class.

Because both of my parents are teachers, I can appreciate when what I learn in the classroom is applied to the “real world.” And especially in a service learning class, I was able to apply information to what we’ve been working on in our group projects.

I think it comes naturally as a journalism student to enjoy meeting and interviewing people in the community in which I live. But it was particularly rewarding to listen to people like Rick Martin, the executive chef at Free State Brewing Co., or Patty Metzler, a medical dietitian at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, talk about and confirm the importance of local food in Lawrence. I’m most inspired by others who are passionate and love what they do, and by being able to talk to people who get what it means to grow food and to know where food comes from, it really has influenced me to ask more questions about my food. It also felt really good to help the Douglas County Food Policy Council learn more ways in which they can evolve within Lawrence and hopefully develop a local food system.

This class more than anything has really helped me to mature both as a consumer and as a writer. Writing a blog post each week has shown me how to truly invite others to conversations rather than shutting them out of talking about important issues. With all of the information that has been thrown at us, I also tend to question things more and look at where certain information comes from. I’m definitely not completely eco-friendly or “green” all of the time, but I’m constantly thinking about these things each time I buy something.

Most importantly, I’m not as afraid to really examine why I do what I do or why I spend my money on certain things and not others. I now take a harsher look at what I do, which at first, was hard to do. But I’ve grown to like being more critical of my decision-making. By continually looking at what I choose to spend my time, money and energy on, I can keep myself in check with how I want others to see me.

— Lauren Cunningham



The holiness of hunger

I’m really not a very religious person. I was raised in a family who maybe went to church for both Christmas and Easter each year.

But if we’re defining religion as Merriam-Webster does, I can easily say that food is the only constant, ritualistic practice in which I believe. Yes, I do have to eat it in order to survive, but for me, and I think for many other people in American society, it serves as more of a connecting and comforting tool to which we can all relate.

from flickr.com

I have a pretty large family, and when we do get to see each other, it’s usually for some religious holiday. And you better believe we can eat. As most grandmothers do, all of my grandmas make the yummiest food, and they always have more than plenty to share. When I eat what they make, I connect to them and to the rest of my family enjoying the meal.

The fulfillment I think others get from their religion, I get from eating with my family. I love having a large family and being close to family members, and I feel closest with them at the dinner table — there’s always good conversation, everyone’s happy (probably because they’re eating good food). I get satisfaction and comfort out of having the reliability of family.

From the meals I’ve shared with family around the holidays, I can understand why food is interwoven with faith and religion. In most religions, food has great significance and symbolism.

The example of this I’m most familiar with comes from the practice of communion. People are taught that the bread is the body of Christ and wine is the blood of Christ in communion. Here, food is more than just something to look forward to on a Sunday morning  — it serves as a way in which to remember Christ.

Among most other religions, food also plays an large role in Judaism — in not just what people can eat, but also in how food is prepared. Some Jewish people only eat kosher food, which is food that is prepared in a certain way, such as animals who have been ritually slaughtered. Certain foods, such as matzoh or maror, symbolize specific parts of the story of Passover. This food provides a richer context of why Passover is celebrated, transforming what’s on the plate to be more than just something for survival purposes.

Especially in religion, food is much more than just a consumption of calories we need to keep alive from day to day. It provides nourishment for needs beyond the physical. It’s the common denominator among everyone. Everyone needs food. And when we share that food with family or with others of the same religion, we bond.

It’s a sacred idea to think that some of the foods we enjoy today are the same as those enjoyed thousands of years ago. Some of those same foods are mentioned in religious texts — the apple in the story of Adam and Eve. Food provides a connection, and in that connection lies comfort.

— Lauren Cunningham



‘Eat your lawn’

I continually see it pop up in my News Feed on Facebook: “______ found some rare eggs to share with their friends!” or ” ______  just harvested their chicken coop. “

Those aren’t my friends’ status updates. They’re recent actions in a game made popular by Facebook called FarmVille.

In FarmVille, there's always enough land to grow food, and usually all, if not most, of it is used. (Photo from flickr.com)

Basically FarmVille allows people to grow and harvest crops, raise animals and keep gardens on a farm. I often wonder how much the game has inspired its players to start growing food in real life.

In the game, players usually use every plot of land they have for something — growing, raising animals or building sheds, barns, etc.  I think this part of the game actually can translate well to a recent food movement: eat your lawn or food, not lawns.

No, this isn’t to suggest we all graze like cows in our neighborhoods, but it does question our society’s obsession with having nice lawns and using resources to grow grass when those resources could be used to grow food.

The movement came after Heather C. Flores wrote Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard Into a Garden and Your Neighborhood Into a Community. The book reflects Heather’s idea that people could connect to each other and to their community through growing food together.

Most gardens I’ve seen at friends’ or family’s homes take up a small section of the backyard, which is nice for growing a few vegetables. But for someone who values variety and having plenty to eat, I can understand why people would want to actually use their lawns for more than just decorative purposes.

Plus, there are benefits to growing a garden (not a digital garden on Farmville. It can be cheaper to grow produce than to buy it from a store. It releases stress and improves muscle tone.

One family in Lawrence, Jeremy and Amber Lehrman, started their own version of “food, not lawns” about four years ago and to both use and sell what they grow. Amber said when she and her husband started to expand their garden to cover more of their yard, it was because they wanted locally-grown food rather than because they had heard about the “food, not lawns” idea. They also realized they could help lessen the impact of food that travels hundreds of miles.

“We wanted to eat farmers’ market food but couldn’t afford farmers’ market food,” she said.

The Lehrmans started with a 4-by-12-foot garden. Amber said each year the garden seemed to double. Now they’re out of room to keep expanding. For the last two years, Jeremy and Amber’s garden has produced more than 1,400 pounds each year. They’re hoping for 2,000 pounds this year.

I can only imagine what would be possible if more Lawrencians caught on to the movement. There might be more of a selection at the farmers’ market, there would be more locally-grown produce restaurants could use and more people in Lawrence could engage with their community. I think the most rewarding aspect behind “food, not lawns” isn’t  the food. People in communities are given a common interest and have common activities, like seed exchanges, in which they can interact with each other.

It’s easy to say, “If only Lawrence had an infinite amount of land.” But maybe we do have enough land here to grow as much of what we want. We’re just not seeing what is really right in front of us.

— Lauren Cunningham



A new kind of green beer

I’ve always wanted to have a green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, and with this being my first Patty’s Day as a 21-year-old, I’ve been getting excited to enjoy one.

I guess I get a small thrill from drinking an unnatural-colored beverage for the wow factor. But the concept of green-colored beer got me wondering about the other type of green beer — beer brewed in a sustainable way. Green, or sustainable, beer can include anything from organic beer to beer brewed in breweries that use solar energy or use waste to help fuel the process.

When I went to Brooklyn Brewery this summer, I didn't even know it was a top green brewery in the U.S. (Huffington Post). I had a local beer with New York honey and orange peel.

I’ve heard my parents or my friends say they like local beers more than generic beers, and I agree. Until recently, I had been under the impression that it was a matter of taste. I’ve tried both beers from local breweries (Ad Astra Ale from Free State Brewery being my favorite) and beer, such as Budweiser, Miller, etc., and I definitely notice a difference in quality.

But drinking local means so much more than just quality or taste. Because beer is made from ingredients that are grown outside of where it’s brewed, local breweries are likely to get most of beer’s necessary ingredients from local areas. Of course, this means less emissions because less travel goes into getting those ingredients to a brewery.

I spoke with executive chef at Free State Brewery Rick Martin about the beer at Free State Brewery. He said although the beer at Free State isn’t organic it’s still a natural product because of its ingredients.

Martin also said their beer is almost a zero-waste product because leftover grain from the brewing process at Free State Brewery is sent to local farms to serve as feed for animals.

Until now, I just thought there were local beers and generic beers. Maybe it’s because I’m relatively new to the drinking scene, but I didn’t even consider that there would be such a thing as organic beer. I’m always quick to assume that the word “organic” always applies to food when it really can be applied to items from clothing to beauty products.

Like any other organic item, organic beer’s ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides. Brewing organic beer even produces a clearer beer and a faster fermentation, which I know people like my uncle (who brews his own beer) are always looking for.

There are even green breweries around the U.S. that brew in a sustainable way, using wind energy or recycling waste products.

Thinking about drinking green-colored beer now kind of freaks me out. Most green beer is made by adding food coloring, which is made of food and color additives, to beer.

Not that I’ll now only be drinking organic beer, but I have found ways in which to make smarter beer choices.

— Lauren Cunningham



Farmers never really retire

Coming from Clyde, Kan., my mom has always told me some interesting tales about her time spent on farms.

From cleaning chickens to helping deliver calves, I’ve heard my share of, and have been a bit grossed out by, these stories. But I recently asked my mom more about farming in our family.

My grandma, my boyfriend, me and my grandpa at Coronado Heights Park in Lindsborg, Kan. Grandma and Grandpa always have the best food at their house, including veggies grown by Grandpa.

I had always just assumed my mom grew up on a farm, but she explained that it was a little bit different than that. They had a small number of chickens and had a vegetable garden (which sounds like a farm to me), but they didn’t have any crops. My grandparents, my mom and my uncles also helped other farms in their community regularly. My grandpa helped process chickens for local farms — I’m not quite sure if I want to know what that means — while my mom said that she would help gather eggs or clean chickens.

She said she also thought my grandpa liked to garden as a way of therapy from this job at Northern Natural Gas where he would work in extremely hot and stressful environments. I think it’s interesting that even today growing food is still proven to be therapeutic.

Between my grandpa’s gardening and hunting and my grandma’s canning and baking, my mom said their family was pretty self-sufficient. Looking back she said she realizes how much cheaper and healthier that way of living was, but at the time, she said it’s just what they did.

“That’s just what we did,” — she says this a lot when she talks about her farming experiences. I think that because farming becomes such a tradition and a way of life for some families, no one really questions how healthy or sustainable it is to grow food for a family. It really just becomes second-nature for some families to decide to farm.

Since I can remember, my grandpa has always grown some sort of vegetable, usually tomatoes or potatoes. He still grows vegetables even though he and my grandma don’t live in a farming community anymore. My mom can no longer eat a store-bought tomato because she says it doesn’t taste right, and I’m beginning to be the same way. Veggies that Grandpa grows taste way better than anything I’ve ever bought.

My mom still has some farmland in Concordia, too. She has 360 acres of rotating crops of soybeans, milo or wheat. She told me that she is never going to sell it.

Like she always tells me, “Farmers never really retire.”

— Lauren Cunningham



Looking at food pantries as a mirror

In case you missed it this week, The Associated Press reported that a woman claimed that the fat around her midsection, otherwise known as love handles, saved her life from a gunshot. She was quoted in the story saying, ‘I want to be as big as I can if it’s going to stop a bullet.’

Now, not only did I think her quote was one of the most illogical statements I’ve read in a while, but the story got me thinking about how the types of foods people eat show in appearance or beliefs about nutrition.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t always eat what I should. (I don’t think anyone really does.) But since taking time to learn about the importance of healthy, sustainable and local foods, I really try to pick out items in the grocery store that reflect this awareness. Unfortunately, because I am a college student and don’t have a lot of money, I can’t always afford the best foods.

My mom often is my hook-up for healthy, locally-grown food, such as this ground beef from Santa Fe Trail Meats. (Photo taken with my iPhone TiltShiftGen app)

 

I think my food pantry and refrigerator reflects my conflict of “Do I buy all fresh, local or organic food or do I buy cheap junk food?” pretty well. In my kitchen, you can find anything from ground beef from Santa Fe Trail Meats or whole grain bread to Velveeta shells and cheese or off-brand cereal.

Honestly if I can get twice as much cereal in a big off-brand bag for half the price of a cereal like Kashi, I’m going to choose the off-brand bag. Yes, I would love to buy Kashi everytime I buy cereal, but that’s extra money each grocery trip I could use for bills, rent, etc.

For me, primarily focusing on buying higher quality proteins, fruits or vegetables is the best option for the income I have right now. Once I have a steady income, I definitely want to be able to shop primarily at places like The Merc. The reality is that I can’t afford it now. It’s enough for me to try to find fresh or healthy foods, let alone organic or locally-grown foods.

Luckily, I do have healthier opportunities around me even now that I always try to take advantage of. One of our family friends shares the vegetables she grows in her garden with my parents and with me, which I love. As a teacher, my mom also regularly tries to buy local foods from her students’ families or co-workers (hence, my supply of meat from Santa Fe Trail Meats).

No, not all of the foods in my kitchen reflect someone who always chooses the healthiest option of food. But I’m not that person just yet anyway. I think my food selection still shows that I am constantly thinking of the smartest, most sustainable food choices for my budget.

— Lauren Cunningham



Please, be more vague

In my recent efforts to become environmentally-friendly, I’ve been searching the App Store on my iPhone for applications that can help me make smarter choices.

This shows a screen capture from my iPhone showing GoodGuide's rating of my Kiwi Strawberry Snapple.

So far, I’ve found GoodGuide. The app gives an overall rating of the product, not based on user ratings, but on a combined score of health, environmental and society ratings. It looks at product quality or safety, unnatural or unhealthy ingredients in the items and environmental impact of the company. It also has a feature that scans the barcode of items to get a sense of how “good” they are.

So after enjoying a Kiwi Strawberry Snapple the other day, I thought I’d check out just how “all-natural” the drink claimed to be. My new app gave the beverage a 3.9 out of 10 rating.

It also gave the drink a zero out of 10 for health, which I found alarming for a product that claimed to be “Made from the Best Stuff on Earth.” I looked at the nutrition facts, and as the label claimed, there were no artificial flavors or preservatives, but I also saw the 51 grams of sugar in the bottle and five percent juice content.

GoodGuide lists information about different aspects of products to help consumers pick the smartest choice.

GoodGuide told me the product contained high fructose corn syrup, a substance found in pretty much everything people eat today. I didn’t see this on the label, so I investigated a little further.

It seemed as though the app’s health rating hadn’t been updated. I found that Snapple recently switched from using high fructose corn syrup to real sugar. a switch that helps its “all-natural” claim.

It makes sense, considering the problems popping up with high fructose corn syrup. GoodGuide even lists high fructose corn syrup as an “ingredient of concern.”

For a juice drink that claims to be all-natural and “Made from the Best Stuff on Earth,” I wonder what Snapple means. The ingredients are recognizable, but it’s a stretch to say my kiwi strawberry drink was all-natural. If Snapple’s implying that fruits are the “best stuff on earth,” they should start putting more fruit in their drinks, instead of making it from “a blend of juices from concentrate with other natural flavors.” They offer some drinks made from 1oo percent juice, so why not make all drinks that way?

I also discovered the company has changed its labels and bottles recently, but only for appearance. GoodGuide gave Snapple a 5.2 out of 10 for its environment rating. Of the three areas the environmental ratings were comprised, two were scored at less than five out of 10: environmental management and resource management.

So as a consumer staring at a drink claiming to be natural and made with “real ingredients,” I’m not impressed. Really, Snapple has just made its ingredients recognizable, which I do appreciate. But to avoid greenwashing, I think they need to re-evaluate other aspects of the company.

GoodGuide is helping me along in my new way of thinking about food and sustainability. But really, I think it takes a more extensive reading of the labels of what I’m consuming.

— Lauren Cunningham



Translating definitions

Recently while eating at Angler’s in Lawrence, I saw something on the menu I hadn’t noticed before. 

On the back side of the menu, it was noted at the bottom that the restaurant was a sustainable seafood restaurant. I pointed it out to my boyfriend, feeling better about our decision to eat there, but I also wanted to know more about exactly what that meant. Below the headline, there was some information that kind of explained what the term “sustainable seafood” meant, but the two short paragraphs on the menu didn’t really inform me completely.

 Since then, I’ve checked out their Web site to see exactly what the restaurant meant by their sustainable seafood statement. They give some good explanations as to what they mean by sustainable seafood, but I wonder how the term translates to other restaurants and to those restaurants’ consumers.

The term “sustainability” has been thrown into a lot of media coverage about environmental or political issues. Often the word is defined as a balance between people, planet and profit. But I think it’s interesting that the word at one point didn’t include anything about the environment. 

I looked up “sustainablility” in the Oxford English Dictionary  through the KU Libraries Web site and found that up until December 2001, no definitions included anything about the environment. The definitions before 2001 did include descriptions of maintenance and the ability to be upheld or stand alone, which I am realizing is essential for others to understand in order to apply it to the environment.

I agree that it’s important to include the planet in the discussion when people take on sustainable projects or talk about making things more sustainable, but I’m not so sure that sustainability — the word itself — fully encompasses the aspect of the environment within its definition. It is nice to have a go-to word that can be used when discussing green or environmental issues, but I don’t think a single word cannot possibly sum up the planet, profit or people.

Instead of just labeling some project or item as “sustainable,” I believe meaningful discussions and definite definitions should be given to the public. Honestly, I don’t have a great answer as to who should give that definition, but I see more news outlets and blogs who are trying to offer some guidance. But of course, there’s always the question of who, if anyone, will actually take the time to educate themselves? My hope is that the term won’t try to define or take on too many aspects, and I hope more people begin to understand that research should be done in order to truly have a meaningful discussion about the environment and the food we get from it.

— Lauren Cunningham



Getting a trend to stick

Trends are a funny concept to consider.

No one person makes any explicit rules or regulations, yet trends can occur locally, nationally, sometimes even internationally.

I know I jumped on the bandwagon when everyone started to claim to eat organically or eat organic food. To be honest, I don’t know if I could even give the correct definition of “organic.” I know some of the major points — no antibiotics, no herbicides — but I have never really taken the time to do my part when it comes to learning about organic foods. USDA organic label? I’ll take it.

Oh, good. Only 17,500 entries to consider.

It seems as though I’m currently succumbing to another food trend: eating local. After watching Food Inc. for the first time, I couldn’t stop telling my boyfriend things like, “We really should think about where we eat out more,” or “I’ve really got to start looking at what I buy at the grocery store and where that food’s coming from.”

The piece of this puzzle that remains to be solved is if I will really, truly learn about this trend and be able to define what “local” means.

Luckily, our focus in “Media and the Environment” is food, and I’ll have numerous opportunities to read material on local food systems and what being a locavore might really mean. But I’m still worried about how others might react to this food trend.

Of course, the public supporting a local food system would be fantastic. But if uneducated individuals account for the majority of this new trend, no local food system can be upheld in Lawrence.
The local economy-boosting aspect of local food systems excites me, but also concerns me. The obvious upside is that it would make convincing others to beginning a strong local food system easier. The downside: the economy won’t always be terrible, believe it or not, so will people continue to care about the economic benefits even years after a recession?

Fortunately, my guess and my hope is that people will notice how beneficial eating locally can be and will want to work to maintain a system. But education and involvement are key to ensuring this.

As a community, Lawrence needs a strong and easy-to-grasp definition of “local.” “Localvore” on the LJWorld.com can be a great beginning to tools that can educate people in Lawrence and in Douglas County. The blogs provide an easy way to get people talking about the possibilities of eating local in Lawrence, which I think is the best way to generate interest. The newly-formed Douglas County Food Policy Council provides helpful resources on a local food system as well.

I learned valuable information after reading the “Localvore” blogs and from the DCFPC, and I’m proud of myself for already being more informed on the next food trend. Now it’s just a matter of educating others.

— Lauren Cunningham



Deconstructing blissful ignorance
January 29, 2010, 3:45 pm
Filed under: Food + Health, J500 Week 2

I’ve recently become addicted to Mad Men. The show, set in the 1960s, depicts the lives of people in the advertising industry in New York City, including the family life of the main characters, which as a modern day viewer can show some past flaws that now seem ridiculous.

I can’t help but chuckle when I see pregnant characters on the show reach for a cocktail or smoke a cigarette in nearly every scene. Obviously, we, as a society, know now that alcohol and tobacco can have serious, harmful side effects for pregnant women, but in that time period, they were oblivious to those. Imagine their reactions when studies came out proving the awful side effects their actions.

Well, after reading reactions to Twinkie, Deconstructed, I experienced what I imagine was the same type of revelation that those characters in Mad Men would have had. Of course, the degree of revelation would probably be different, but the same kind of realization after ignorance occurred with me.

I’d like to give myself some credit and say that even before reading about Twinkie, Deconstructed I figured that Twinkies weren’t healthy and definitely weren’t natural — in the way they look and taste — and therefore, probably weren’t made with natural ingredients. But like most other consumers, I was ignorant to all of the harmful ingredients in Twinkies and more importantly, where those ingredients come from. If more consumers knew about the off-shore food additives that appear in most foods they eat, I think they would be more inclined to eat natural, local-grown foods.

It’s amazing to me that even in 2010, we still don’t know everything about the food we eat, but we’ve learned all about the negative components of things as alcohol or cigarettes that aren’t consumed everyday. The Twinkie was made in 1930, and I don’t know if the same ingredients were in that version compared to today’s version, but I’m sure there were some overlapping ingredients.

As the popular saying goes, ignorance is bliss, but what happens when that ignorance evolves into problems that have major consequences? If people are happier being oblivious to what they’re eating, than knowing about unnatural substances, then those same people should realize the eventual health issues they might encounter.

Consumers should realize that they might have to pay more for healthier, natural foods and that to find those kind of foods might require some education. Reading about Twinkie, Deconstructed can be a start to realizing that ignorance toward what we’re putting in our bodies isn’t so blissful.

— Lauren Cunningham




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